From 1984 to 2009, he worked as operations manager for Sparkle Industrial Cleaning in Tinley Park.
Since then he's been applying the lessons he learned about management and facility operations to school districts in the suburban Chicago area.
Mr. Sierra worked for Kirby 140 from 2010 to 2012, overseeing seven buildings in the Tinley Park-based district. He then became buildings and grounds director for Arbor Park School District 145 in Oak Forest, a position he held from June 2012 to October 2014.
From there Mr. Sierra took a leadership position in Mokena School District 159, where he headed the buildings and grounds department until beginning his District 401 job this summer.
To learn more about Mr. Sierra, including his formative experience working in the private sector, District 401 web/media specialist Dave Porreca interviewed him via email.
The Q&A was conducted in July after Mr. Sierra officially began his new job. An edited version of their exchange appears below.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago.
Q: What high school did you attend?
A: I attended Andrew High School.
Q: What were your main interests and activities when you are a student?
A: I have always been very interested in mechanical and shop studies.
Q: Did you continue with your education directly after high school? If so, what did you study and where?
A: I attended the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Business Administration, and I had odd jobs along the way. It seems jobs I had after high school all led me to the field of maintenance and business administration. This has been my passion in life.
Q: You worked as operations manager for Sparkle Industrial Cleaning for almost 25 years, beginning in 1984. Did you have any other full-time jobs prior to that? If so, what were they, and how did your path lead you to Sparkle Industrial?
A: Positions I held after high school where all in the field of auto mechanics, machinery maintenance and front office administration, along with customer service experience. This led me to obtaining a position within a school district as a supervisor in building maintenance and custodial issues.
Q: What were some of the important things you learned during your time at Sparkle Industrial?
A: I think the most important thing I learned during my tenure with Sparkle is that hands-on experience and good staff interaction will aid in the overall goals to maintain a well-functioning business. During my time with Sparkle I also learned all of the aspects of fiscal operations from front office to quality operations, as well as efficiency of all mechanical properties and customer relations.
Q: Sparkle Industrial appears to be a private business. Is that correct? If so, what motivated you to move into the public sector, and why Kirby School District 140 as a starting point?
A: You are correct. This was a private business, and I was fortunate enough to be a key part of helping to make this business even more successful. Sparkle helped me to pursue my passion for this industry and reinforce the knowledge I had acquired throughout my life. This was a wonderful stepping stone; however, after many years, the owner retired and closed the company.
Kirby District 140 was hiring for a supervisor at this point, and this was an exceptional transition into the public sector and into what I believe is my true calling. My experiences with Sparkle have helped me form my career in schools; in many ways it is quite similar. Leading by example and dealing with negotiations of staff, contractors and the public sector when I was with Sparkle has empowered me to give 110 percent to assist in the continued success of the school districts I have been fortunate enough to be a part of.
Q: In your experience, what are the differences between working for a school district and working for a private business?
A: Working for a private business you are responsible to the owner, the customers and the success of the business. Working for a school you are responsible for not only the schools, but the district, the public, and the safety and well being of staff and students, as well as maintaining a well-functioning, successful, safe and happy work environment.
Q: Prior to coming to District 401, you worked in three school districts. In two of those districts you were the buildings & grounds director (Mokena D159 and Arbor Park D145). What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of from your time at your previous districts?
A: Some of my major accomplishments included the overseeing of the construction of new roofs, multi-million dollar mechanical projects, asbestos abatement and always working within budget or under budget.
Q: How has your experience at your previous districts prepared you for what you’ll be doing in District 401?
A: Being director at previous districts allows me the opportunity to apply my vast years of experience to assist in moving District 401 forward to meet and exceed District expectations.
Q: What attracted you to the District 401 job?
A: Having worked at elementary school districts I believe that at this point in my career I find it will be challenging and rewarding to work for a community unit school district.
Q: For people who might not know what the D401 buildings & grounds director does, what are your main responsibilities?
A: My main responsibilities will be the safety of the students and faculty, to maintain all District buildings and grounds, and to ensure the cleanliness and the daily operations of the buildings.
Q: How would you define “success” in your new job?
A: “Success” to me is defined by setting goals and accomplishing those goals in a timely fashion, exceeding one's own expectations. Overall it means keeping the operations of the District on track and assisting in making the work environment for everyone safe and above standards.
Q: Beyond your daily responsibilities, what are some of the major projects that the Buildings & Grounds Department will be involved in during the next several years?
A: Currently we are in the preliminary stages of a building addition, and we will be working with Dr. Wade [Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicolas Wade] and Mr. Jennings [Assistant Superintendent for Finance & Operations / CSBO Mr. James Jennings] to create five-, seven- and 10-year strategic maintenance plans.
Q: Over the years, have you developed a leadership philosophy that guides you as a manager? If so, what are the main principles of your philosophy?
A: My leadership philosophy is simple: Lead by example, always be open-minded, treat people as you would expect to be treated. Guide and be a good listener. Always be open to new ideas and technology.
Q: What are your main strengths as a manager or leader in general, and as a buildings & grounds director in particular?
A: I lead by example, and I am always open to suggestions. I am a hard worker and very dedicated to achieving goals. I believe good communication is key and that any problem has a solution. Implementing or improving the best procedures to keep the schools and buildings running properly and complying with all State and District standards is key to my leadership goals.
Q: You’re fluent in Spanish. Did you grow up in a bilingual household? How has your knowledge of Spanish helped you professionally over the years?
A: I did grow up in a bilingual household. My parents spoke both Spanish and English, and my grandparents spoke predominantly Spanish. As in any field, being bilingual is always a plus; being around many Spanish-speaking employees and being able to communicate with them gives them a feeling of comfort, and it allows me to address the needs of the job and address their individual needs and concerns.
I am very grateful that I was fortunate enough to be fluent in both languages; being able to communicate equally with all employees is imperative to a successful and fulfilling work environment.
Q: What are some of your main interests outside of work?
A: My main interests out of work are spending time with my family, museums, watching football, taking long walks and grilling out.
Q: Would you like to tell us anything about your family?
A: I reside in Tinley Park with my wife of 23 years, our youngest daughter and our dog, Belle. I have three children. My eldest son is a speech pathologist, my middle daughter is working as a psychologist in Arizona and currently studying for her master’s. My youngest daughter is attending college for human resources. My wife is a paraprofessional for pre-K special education.